Founder of Pay Our Interns virtually visits Rutgers
On Tuesday, the Rutgers School of Social Work Graduate Student Association and the Graduate Student Association hosted a virtual event headlined by Carlos Mark Vera, founder of Pay Our Interns.
Pay Our Interns was founded in 2016 by Vera and Guillermo Creamer Jr. after the former experienced difficulties as an intern himself. During Tuesday's event, Vera discussed the importance of paying interns for their work, including those who work in the field of social work.
He said that at one point while in college, he had an unpaid internship where he worked 30 hours every week. At the same time, Vera worked somewhere else for 20 hours every week to generate income.
"As opposed to immersing myself in the internship, going to the networking events, which you will need to get a job, I was fighting not to fall asleep," he said.
Vera said he went through numerous unpaid internships, including at the White House, the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress. After these internships, Vera said he realized that internships being unpaid were accepted as the norm in many job fields.
"If internships have become, basically, a requirement in many professions … why isn't there any organization fighting (and) doing the advocacy part ... to change this (pay system)?" he said.
Vera said many issues stem from interns not being considered employees because they are unpaid. For unpaid interns, since money is not involved, they have no employee rights, he said.
During the webinar, Vera said he decided to quit his job at 23 years old to create Pay Our Interns. The goal of the organization was to create equitable pathways throughout the time spent as an intern up until a permanent job offer is available, he said.
The group's first goal was to target Congress as it was the largest employer of unpaid interns up until 2019. Pay Our Interns worked with politicians to create funding for interns that work in Congress, Vera said.
Two years ago, he worked with Congress again, this time to fund White House and State Department internships. The $150 million in funding came from taxpayer dollars and assisted more than 30,000 students.
After its success working with Congress, Pay Our Interns began to collaborate with another organization called Payment for Placements, Vera said.
Payment for Placement exposed Vera to the issues interns working in social work face, he said.
"If we cannot function as a society without social workers … why make it so difficult to become one in the first place? We know a lot of it has to do with history. The rules were written decades ago when there (were different students in the field), and it was kind of assumed that your husband was there to support you. We need to rethink that," Vera said.
He said that he sees potential routes to help social work interns — the first being public policy. States like Michigan, New Mexico and Colorado are already making progress toward impactful public policy, he said.
Another route for better conditions for social work interns would be a public-private partnership in which school foundations can fund payment for interns, he said.
An additional route is having employers directly pay interns. While this path would not be possible for every organization, especially non-profits, employers like profitable hospitals should be able to pay, Vera said. He said that storytelling is a tool needed to convey interns' hardships to legislators and the American public.
"We cannot legislate away this problem. You have to change hearts and minds," he said. "It goes back to the power of story-telling and narrative."